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Reflections on Ethics 77
From Whence Cometh Evil?

A dialogue on amoralist ethics

by: Will Petillo

To open a discussion on this article, please use the contact page to provide your comments.

Evelen:  So I had an interesting argument with Contrarious yesterday.

Remus:  Really, what was it about?

Evelen:  Cannibalism, Contrarious was defending it and managed to back me into a rhetorical corner when I was forced to admit that there is nothing inherently wrong with it.  There were plenty of reasons that I could think of that made it a bad idea, particularly health concerns and the spread of certain diseases, but nothing that made it wrong.

Remus:  That doesn’t surprise me, “right” and “wrong” are meaningless terms and any set of values one assigns to something is entirely arbitrary.

Evelen:  What?!  Are you suggesting that if I were to kill you right now with this rock that would not be a bad thing?

Remus:  Well, I certainly wouldn’t like it.  In fact, I would do all in my power to stop you.  But to say that it is “bad” in some objective sense—what would that even mean?

Evelen:  That the action is inherently blameworthy and that it would be wrong for me to do it.

Remus:  Yes, yes, I know what you mean in a definitional sense.  But what is the source of this judgment?  Where does the “badness,” “wrongness,” “blameworthiness” or whatever you want to call it come from?

Evelen:  Well, I suppose some would say that morality comes from God.

Remus:  That doesn’t answer the question, if there is a God that wants certain things of us, all that implies is that God wants certain things of us and that it might be in our best interests to act in accordance with this divine intention—and that’s not even getting into the problem of how one would go about ascertaining what exactly God’s will is or if God even exists!

Evelen:  Eh, right.  Let’s save that conversation for another time.  Well, I suppose one could say that good is that which is in accordance with divine command.

Remus:  Why?

Evelen:  By definition.

Remus:  I don’t like that definition; it is much too arbitrary to be useful.

Evelen:  Very well, I admit it: I don’t know what the source of morality is.  Nevertheless, it seems as though there ought to be one, whatever it is.

Remus:  Why?

Evelen:  Because of the shared beliefs we have.  Back to the rock, the idea of me throwing it at you, even if you wouldn’t call it “bad,” will you at least admit that it seems unjust?

Remus:  I will admit that I don’t like the idea.

Evelen:  Well, it doesn’t seem right to me either.  And I’ll bet that if there were other people around, they would also find it unjust.

Remus:  For all they know, you might have a good reason for stoning me.  It could be in self-defense.

Evelen:  Suppose they knew the context.

Remus:  All right, so they would probably call the cops on you, what’s your point?

Evelen:  My point is that, despite all the disagreements about morality people have, there seem to be certain, fundamental things that people tend to agree on.

Remus:  Like throwing rocks at people?

Evelen:  Maybe that’s not the best example.  How about things more general than that?  Such as: “if you do right by others, you will do right by yourself.”

Remus:  I ask again, what’s your point?

Evelen:  My point is that this fundamental agreement people have, does it not indicate some universal morality?

Remus:  No, it implies that people have similar ethical beliefs, which is not particularly surprising given that all humans are 99.9% genetically identical.  I don’t know what the source of this agreement is, perhaps empathy is hardwired into us—possibly as a result of kin selection—and therefore we all have an impulse towards helping others and then reason retroactively that this impulse is inherently good.  In any case, agreement does not imply truth.

Evelen:  Now you’re sounding like Contrarious…

Remus:  And what about the people who disagree?  People disagree about everything, I am sure there are at least a few sociopaths out there who see nothing at all wrong with hurting others.  And if your argument rests on consensus, those few exceptions present a major problem to the universality of morality you are going on about.

Evelen:  Well, those people are simply wrong.  It’s OK for there to be a few exceptions, the general rule still holds.

Remus:  And how do you account for the fact that common assumptions regarding ethics and morality have changed dramatically over time?

Evelen:  Morals have changed over time because society has become more enlightened.  And I imagine that the morality of society will continue to change as time goes on as we continue to come to a greater understanding of what is right and wrong.

Remus:  And how do you know that modern morality is superior to earlier beliefs?

Evelen:  Are you asking me to defend the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, and democratic government?

Remus:  No, I agree with you on all of those things.  What I am asking is that you explain what causes like these are all based on.  When you say that these changes represent moral progress, what does that mean?  By what universal standard are you measuring these things?

Evelen:  Oh, now I see what this is all about.  You’re a moral relativist, aren’t you?

Remus:  No, moral relativism—as I understand it, at least—presupposes that there is such a thing as “right” and “wrong” and argues that these are different for different groups of people.  This, I think, is even more incoherent than a belief in an unchanging, universal moral system.  I guess that what I am arguing for could be called “amoralist ethics.”

Evelen:  You’re amoral?  No, I don’t believe it, you seem nice enough.

Remus:  Not immoral, amoral.  An immoralist believes in a system of morality but acts contrary to it.  An amoralist does not have a system of morality either because of some mental disorder that makes it impossible to care about others or because they believe right and wrong to be meaningless terms.  I consider myself to be the latter type of amoralist and rather resent the fact that a term used to describe my philosophical position is also used to describe sociopaths—hopefully a new term will be devised to rename one of these when enough people begin to share my annoyance.

Evelen:  But if you believe that, then how do you make judgments? 

Remus:  I might be amoralist, but that does not mean I have no system of ethics.

Evelen:  Wait, what?  I thought morality and ethics were the same thing.

Remus:  No, morality is a system of right and wrong, ethics are the rules one lives by.  Thus, I am amoral because I see all systems of right and wrong to be fundamentally arbitrary, but I am ethical because I still live by a set of rules.

Evelen:  Oh really?  And what is this set of rules based on?

Remus:  It is based on what I want.

Evelen:  That sounds rather self-serving.  What about other people?

Remus:  Helping others is often good for oneself in the long run.

Evelen:  Ah, enlightened self-interest.  But would you help someone else if it did not benefit you in some way?

Remus:  Sure I would.  I have empathy and therefore helping people makes me feel good and hurting them gives me an unpleasant, guilty sensation and I allow this to guide my actions.

Evelen:  OK, well that’s not too bad.  But these amoralist ethics of yours are still ultimately based on self-interest; they leave no room for doing something simply because it is right, despite knowing that it will not benefit you in either the long or the short term and also that you will quickly get over any guilt resulting from inaction.

Remus:  Not so fast, just because I would never describe any of my actions as being “right,” this does not necessarily mean that my beliefs will prevent me from acting altruistically.  There are other factors affecting human behavior besides utility and empathy—social conditioning, tradition, and irrational impulses, for example.

Evelen:  I think it would be better if we discussed this in terms of an example.  Say you were going into politics—

Remus:  God forbid!

Evelen:  Hypothetically, hypothetically.  Say you were going into politics, how could you govern society if you didn’t believe that anything is right or wrong?  Would you not punish criminals just because what they did may have seemed all right to them and who are you to judge?

Remus:  I suppose I would work under some kind of utilitarian system, working for the greatest good for the greatest number—with possible exceptions.

Evelen:  Then you admit that there is some good that you would be working towards.

Remus:  No, I would simply be giving people what they want.

Evelen:  Why?

Remus:  Because I would want to help people if I had the means.

Evelen:  Why?

Remus:  What do you mean, why?

Evelen:  It is impossible to think about ethics on a purely utilitarian level.  If everything is a means to an end, then there must be some end.  What is it all for?

Remus:  Pleasure principle, whatever makes people happy is desirable by definition.

Evelen:  But does this not imply that pleasure is a good thing?

Remus:  No, only that it is something that I will pursue.

Evelen:  But what about the utilitarian claim that the ends justify the means?

Remus:  I don’t know.  I’ll have to think about that…in any case, whether or not utilitarianism is a perfect ethical system is beyond the point.  Utilitarianism is not amoralism because the former presupposes that a universal morality exists, but that it just happens to coincide with what people want (how convenient!).  Amoralism might lead to similar conclusions but gets to them completely differently because it does not presuppose that universal morality.  Of course, this is only my own understanding of amoralism; another person who shares my beliefs about morality may have completely different ideas about ethics.  I guess what I am saying is that amoralism, in and of itself, has no effect on behavior; it is merely a different way of describing one’s decision-making process.

Evelen:  And you don’t think that how one understands morality will have an impact on one’s actions?

Remus:  Not in the slightest.  For every abstract moral system, one can imagine a personal desire structure that results in the same way of living. 

Evelen:  But what happens when there is no system of morality to inform that desire structure?

Remus:  Not much.  Out of empathy, people would be just as likely to help others.  Out of trust in authority, people would be no more likely to think for themselves.  Out of sheer human arrogance, people would probably be just as self-righteous.  Out of laziness, people would be just as prone to oversimplify ethical issues and stereotype others.  Out of necessity, people and societies will develop ways of making decisions.  The only difference is that certain unnecessary assumptions would be removed.

Evelen:  Like what?

Remus:  Like the assumption that actions have a moral quality independent of their effect.  Like the assumption that there is some universal measuring stick by which to compare one set of beliefs to another rather than simply observing that, from any given concerned point of reference, certain things are more desirable than others.  Furthermore, this way of thinking makes it possible to achieve genuine and systematic progress in ethics.

Evelen:  All right, I was following you for the unnecessary assumptions bit, but what’s this about “genuine and systematic progress in ethics?”  Why is this possible under amoralism and not possible when the existence of morality is assumed?

Remus:  If one asks: “what is right?” there is no way to answer that question with any kind of certainty—or even evidence for that matter.  All we have to go on is our intuitions, which change over time and are often based on what we want to be true rather than on what we can demonstrate to be true.  If, on the other hand, one asks: “what do we want?” then there are answers.  True, these answers are complex and vary between people, but claims regarding desirability are measurable and testable in ways that claims regarding morality are not.  Thus, this new kind of inquiry would yield results that, though they might not be called “good,” would nevertheless be worth pursuing.

Evelen:  I don’t know how to respond to that.  Perhaps someone who has overheard this conversation will comment on or continue this discussion…